By Lydia Kaiser
Very few people feel adequate to help children process their emotions, especially when something tragic happens. Children can be so different, can’t they? They respond differently to difficulty, with some seeming unbothered and others falling apart at every turn. But they all need comfort and help to process their emotions, trauma, or difficulty. Even Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to stay with him when his sorrow was crushing. If adults need comfort and help to process, why not children?
No matter how hard we try to shelter kids, they will encounter some very difficult things—possibly sooner than you think. So, it’s important we help equip them with the emotional tools to express themselves and ensure they feel safe coming to us with problems, before we find ourselves in the middle of a crisis.
Here are 3 steps to help kids feel emotionally safe with you as you guide them to process difficulty or trauma.
1. Equip Kids With an Emotional Vocabulary
It’s vital when experiencing any kind of difficulty or trauma that a person is able to talk about what happened and how it made them feel. This is especially important with children. However, not all children have the vocabulary to put their feelings or experiences into words.
To put things in perspective, many psychologists believe that human beings experience up to 8 basic emotions—emotions like “happy”, “sad”, or “angry”. However, the variations of those 8 basic emotions easily number up to 27, while there are even more nuances to the human experience.
Most children are barely equipped with the emotional vocabulary to describe even those 8 basic emotions, much less the 27 other possibilities of what they might be feeling. When children don’t know how to describe their emotions or where to categorize it in their own, developing brains, this only makes them want to act out or shut down more, rather than get the help they need.
Teaching kids an emotional vocabulary early on will help both you and them to better understand what’s going on in their world, so you can then help them process not only the difficult situations when they arise, but also their responses to it. If something has already happened that you know of, patiently help your kids to use emotive words to talk about it. We’re better able to use God’s truth to process and manage emotions if we can first identify what we are experiencing.
2. Create a Safe Space for Sharing Feelings
Do all your children have the courage to speak up if something has made them uncomfortable? Some children are just born bold and need no encouragement to say everything they think. Other kids are sensitive and need to process things internally first. If life is busy with multiple kids in a family, a sensitive child may never feel it’s the right time to speak up, or might worry more about getting someone else in trouble than they worry about themself.
Regardless of your child’s tendencies, it’s vital to let each kid know that you are always available to listen to them when they need you, that you are a safe space for any feelings they might share, and that what they have to say is important to you. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the child can interrupt or be rude. But if they indicate that they have something to say, build trust by establishing the habit of noticing and giving them the opportunity to speak.
This includes noticing when a less-bold child has tried to speak but has been talked over repeatedly. By hushing the others to give this child the floor or privately giving a little extra, focused attention to the timid child—asking questions about how they’re doing or what they thought about an activity—this child is more likely to seek you out when troubled, if they know you will listen.
Maybe you’ve always been bold, yourself, and just don’t “get” that sensitive child; thinking they’ll grow out of it or say something if they really need to. Perhaps you grew up in a home where focused listening wasn’t done for you. If so, it’s going to take intentionality for you to overcome your biases and encourage a sensitive child to talk.
It’s easy for life to get hectic. But as much as we love our children, the quiet ones will keep their feelings under the radar if we aren’t intentional. By repeatedly taking time to listen to the little things, your child will learn to trust and come to you when it’s harder over the bigger things.
3. Don’t Judge
Lastly, whenever your child does come to you with something, it’s important not to judge them or their emotions. While this is true for everyone, this is especially important with children as kids often see things differently than an adult does, and it can be hard to slip out of our “adult shoes” and into their kid ones enough to relate.
Even if their issue, hurts, or traumas are smaller than ours, they are still valid and worth addressing. God gave us emotions for a reason and it’s dehumanizing to dismiss or minimize them. All emotions have value, and we need to take them to God, pray about them specifically, and discover what the Bible says about them.
Psalm 103:13-14 says, “As a father shows compassion to His children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” May God help us emulate the Heavenly Father and remember the weak frame of our children, treating them with great compassion as they encounter the difficulties of this fallen world.